It’s your 20-week ultrasound, and you’re so excited to get a glimpse of your baby. And with such a close look at their anatomy, you are about to find out the sex! The sonographer carefully explains all of the wavy gray shapes on the screen, pointing out your baby’s brain, spine, and heart. And finally, the moment you’ve been waiting for….”It’s a___!” And your stomach drops. Even though you told all your friends and family that you “really don’t care whether it’s a boy or girl!” deep down – you did have hopes… and now you’re disappointed in this intimate “gender reveal.”
Sound familiar? Whether you found out early, or waited until the baby was Earth-side to find out the sex, you’re not alone. Gender disappointment is incredibly common for new parents, but it’s an under-discussed emotional aspect of the pregnancy journey. People who feel disappointed about the gender of their unborn child often stay quiet about their experiences— they think about their friend undergoing IVF, who would be happy with any baby at all, or they imagine the judgment of our culture, which tells us, “A healthy baby is all that matters.” And of course—everyone wants a healthy baby, no one more than that baby’s parents. It makes sense why parents don’t talk about this, but it doesn’t make the feeling just disappear.
It’s perfectly normal to feel disappointed if you had your heart set on raising a little girl or always envisioned yourself as a #boymom. You may feel sadness, shame, guilt, fear, anger, disconnection, or any other combination of emotions. It’s ok to grieve your imagined baby, as well as your own inner narrative and expectation.
All of that said, it’s important to note that sex does not equal gender. A baby’s sex is the biological attributes that they are born with, including their genitalia and chromosomes. Gender is more complex and is influenced by instinct, culture, society, and more. In general, gender identity is how someone feels and expresses their gender. The sex of the baby is what you find out through a first-trimester blood test, at your anatomy scan, or at the moment of birth—the gender of your baby is something that will reveal itself in time. And although our culture seems to most often use the term gender in relation to babies, what most people mean is actually sex. The more you know!
Still, it’s common to have some big feelings around the reveal of a baby’s biological sex, even if you intellectually know that their anatomy won’t dictate their identity. We talked to Dr. Emma Levine, PhD, a licensed psychologist and founder of Perennial Wellness, a group practice that specializes in women’s mental health, to learn more about how you can cope with your very valid feelings of disappointment.
How to Cope with Gender Disappointment, According to a Therapist
“Gender disappointment is a very common psychological experience among the women in my practice,” says Dr. Levine. “Women often fear that their disappointment is a barometer of how they will be as a mother, or of how much they will love—or be able to love—their child. Shame shows up for women when they conflate their feelings of disappointment as being indicative of who they are as a woman and as an expectant mother.”
But, she adds, “The key here is that preferences are flexible. Most people are also typically able to regain their ’emotional footing’ and, ultimately, feel optimistic and positive in relation to the sex of their unborn child.”
The key here is that preferences are flexible.
Here are some of the ways Dr. Levine suggests you can process your feelings and “regain your emotional footing.”
Self-reflect: Dr. Levine says, “It’s important to first make space to engage in non-judgmental self-reflection about your feelings of disappointment. The ability to be curious about where your disappointment may be rooting from is foundational to healing your pain. For example, is your disappointment the result of a deeply rooted fantasy not being actualized? Is your disappointment showing up because you feel insecure or less able to parent a child of a particular sex? Is it connected to a prior pregnancy loss, or some other trauma from your past?”
Talk about your experience: Due to feelings of insecurity or shame, parents struggling with gender disappointment often feel alone or isolated in their experience. Dr. Levine adds, “In fact, because women often silence themselves and are reluctant to seek support for their feelings, we don’t know how often true gender disappointment happens, or the full range of its impact on mental health.” Talking about it can be a powerful way to process and share with trusted people in your life, including friends, family, or a therapist or maternal mental health specialist. Consider joining a new parents’ circle to connect with other people in the same stage of life—chances are, someone there has experienced some of the same feelings.
Check-in with your partner: Once again, communication is key. Your partner may be having similar feelings of disappointment, especially if you had a shared vision for your family. Regardless of their own personal feelings, they can be a strong support for you as you process yours. Be open to sharing how your thoughts and feelings are evolving—and to hearing how theirs are, too.
Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of your fantasy: It’s ok to want a child of a particular sex. Seriously—that’s a completely normal human want. So when the ultrasound results don’t match up with the expectation, allow yourself to grieve the loss of your desire and fantasy. Dr. Levine advises, “Work to trust that the grief can exist while also holding space to love and build a bond with your unborn child. Break down dichotomous, black-and-white thinking. Use self-talk such as: “I feel sadness and grief that I will not be having a baby boy and I trust that I will love my baby girl deeply and will have gratitude for our special bond.”
Finding Acceptance (and Excitement!) Through Mindfulness
Mindfulness can also be a powerful tool to help you move through feelings of grief and disappointment, says Dr. Levine. The practice of mindfulness often helps people move to a place of self-acceptance, which can be key when experiencing gender disappointment. Whether it’s meditation, journaling, or other mindfulness practices, Dr. Levine says these types of activities are all “useful strategies to allow yourself to feel your feelings of disappointment without judgment.”
Take time to tune into yourself and feel the parts of you that are strong, loving, and accepting. Whether your baby is a boy, girl, nonbinary, or trans—everything you need to parent your little one is there inside of you already.